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Mars Rising

In the end, she surprised me too.

When I reviewed Veronica Mars last fall, I liked what I saw — and didn’t think I’d get to see much more of it. A hard-boiled detective show starring a cute blonde high schooler? Which was actually worth watching? On UPN? I figured it wouldn’t outlast Wonderfalls

I’ve rarely been happier to be wrong. First Mars scored a full-season pickup, ensuring that her small but loyal fan following (and a good many smitten critics) would get to see Veronica solve the murder of her best friend, Lily Kane. Then the show trounced all comers in E! Online’s “Save This Show” poll with a whopping, unprecedented 66 percent of the vote. Finally, in a move that probably had Satan turning up the thermostat, UPN gave the show an early renewal for Season Two despite its meager ratings. That’s news worth leading a cheer for. (And I’m not just saying that because a guy I knew in college turned up as a guest star.)

Last Tuesday’s episode capped a surprise-packed season with the long-awaited unveiling of Lily Kane’s killer. I pride myself on staying several steps ahead of my favorite shows’ tangled plotlines, but Mars creator Rob Thomas (who also created TeeVee favorite Cupid) and his writers proved themselves masters of misdirection. During the course of the season, I twice thought that I’d sussed out the killer’s identity for certain. I was wrong both times.

Why was I so confused? Because on this show, no one’s quite who they seem. The thuggish biker’s got a sense of honor to balance his enthusiastically criminal nature. The snarky, sneering rich kid conceals genuine decency and compassion. That kind, inspiring teacher? He’s getting a little too close to his attractive young students. It would have been easy for Thomas and his team to make the victim herself a flawless little angel, but flashbacks revealed Lily as spoiled, callous and more than a little promiscuous. It’s difficult to feel sorry for anyone like that, no matter what their fate — difficult, but not impossible.

Mars wouldn’t let any character among its talented cast get away with being entirely “good” or “bad” — even Veronica herself. She was tough, smart and resourceful in pursuing Lily’s killer — but despite her reluctance, she was willing to use and manipulate the few friends she had, stretching their trust to the breaking point to further her investigation. Thomas allowed to see what, up until the season’s haunting final moments, Veronica couldn’t: Her search for Lily’s murderer was really an attempt to fix her own screwed-up life. And in that respect, it was doomed from the start.

Like plenty of good shows, Mars’ first-season storyline piled twist upon twist. Unlike too many shows — even some of my favorites — all those twists made sense. All the different clues to Lily’s killing added up to a coherent whole, with no hasty applications of retroactive continuity. (Alias, I’m looking in your direction.) The show’s plotline had the gripping feel of a great mystery novel — not surprising, considering Thomas originally conceived Mars as his fourth young-adult book.

What is surprising is just how dark the show can get. Veronica’s high school is a vicious and unforgiving place where the line between social mortification and actual physical harm is all too thin. Any show can be “daring” by showing teens drinking or using drugs; Mars doesn’t flinch at physical abuse, rape or the specter of incest. The season finale’s nightmarish climax — a terrified Veronica trapped inside a burning refrigerator, her dad Keith setting himself on fire to rescue her — packed as much punch as any of 24’s best moments. (It also nabbed Keith Mars the Most Badass Dad on TV Award, making previous contenders Jack Bristow and Jack Bauer look like spineless wusses in comparison.)

After all that, I should probably mention just how funny Mars can get. Any show that uses the high-school ladies’ room as its heroine’s impromptu office, or features a sleazy rival P.I. whose secretary is also his mom, can’t take itself entirely seriously. As Veronica, Kristen Bell has a million-dollar grin and a way with wisecracks unparalleled since the early, non-depressing years of Buffy.

In fact, plenty of critics have called Mars the natural successor to Buffy. Me? I just don’t see it. Sure, both shows have tiny blonde high schoolers fighting evil with the occasional help of a platonic male buddy, a sweetly geeky computer expert, and a rogue cheerleader. Sure, both heroines are pining for their broody, forehead-intensive ex-boyfriends, whom they can’t sleep with for fear of disaster (in Mars’ case, because he might have been her half-brother. Yikes.) And yeah, both heroines briefly dated a stand-up guy in law enforcement before ditching him for a quasi-psychotic bad boy with a heart of gold. But that’s no reason to… I mean, uh… wait a minute. Never mind. (I should add that in Mars’ case, imitation — however coincidental — turned out to be the sincerest form of awesomeness.)

Slayer similarities or not, Veronica Mars is one hell of a show. It may not be flashy or high-budget, but its quiet excellence grows on you episode by episode, and it almost never disappoints. That makes it my pick (sorry, Lost) for the season’s best new series. That said, it’s okay if you didn’t tune in all season. Some of you are probably still taking antibiotics from the last time you watched UPN. The network’s promos for the show were sincere but typically awful, and that’s assuming you even knew the show existed in the first place. Lucky for you, the first season should debut on blessedly UPN-free DVD in September, just in time to (hopefully) hook new fans. In the meantime, curious viewers should keep an eye peeled for summer reruns.

Veronica Mars’ early second-season renewal by the onetime home of WWE Smackdown is a sign that UPN might be ready for something better. And if that means more shows like this one make it to the air — and stay there — then heaven help me, I’ll be watching a lot more UPN in the future.

Provided I’ve gotten all my shots first.

[Reruns from Veronica Mars’ first season air Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. PT/ET on UPN.]


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